Children’s and YA books – a short homage!

So, the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize shortlist has just been announced. I’m not familiar with many of this year’s nominated titles, so there’s some homework for me.

It’s nothing new to declare oneself as an adult who enjoys reading children’s and/or YA books. It’s cool, zeitgeisty and inclusive – ignore all the critics who say that it’s indicative of a juvenile tendency in today’s troubled millennials and their desire to regress; I reckon you are free to adore Will Self and Wolf Hall and Twilight and Michael Morpurgo in equal measure (just like you can enjoy both Balzac and Sex and the City). Why limit yourself to a particular subsection of culture, or earnestly avoid anything seen as ‘low’ art? And anyway, as much cleverer people than me have said, good children’s writing is good writing.

There exists a whole slew of very funny blogs aimed at adult readers of children’s or YA books: too many to list here, but even then it was only the other day that I discovered the delights of the brilliant Book Riot (which features posts focusing on such vitally important debates as JK Rowling’s alleged ‘mistake’ over Ron and Hermione and, even more crucially, which YA character has the most husband potential (I could think of a few more to add to their list, not least Wolf from Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes but you know, that might risk GIVING AWAY MY AGE)).

Tiger Eyes cover

I love recommending things to younger relatives – I aspire to be a sort of older cousin-come-geektastic-book-dispensing-fairy – and I love in turn hearing what they’re into. Haven’t heard their thoughts on the Waterstone’s list as yet, but it got me thinking about what I’d put if I had to sketch out my own, all-time favourites list. Not that any such list could ever be representative, or complete! But right now, off the top of my head, I’d go for:

Picture books

Hairy McClary’s Rumpus at the Vet by Lynley Dodd and David Tennant. For the character of Noodle the Poodle alone.

Dogger by Shirley Hughes. Made me want to be a better sibling in a very sweet and non-didactic way.

Dear Daddy by Phillippe Dupasquier. My own Dad once worked away and this was when I first understood that sometimes we read to find solace: a character has usually been there before you.

The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth. A mystery, involving various kinds of POO! Does it get better??

Fiction for 5-12-year-olds

Kitty Slade Book 2 cover

Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes – this is FAB, the stuff children dream of. A brother and sister discover a time capsule buried in their garden – which happens to be a rather large underground chamber containing two cryogenically-frozen children from the 1950s! Cue fish-out-of-water-style mayhem as the two children abruptly enter the 21st century. Political incorrectness and culture shock – thought-provoking as well as funny.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper. Shakespeare and time-travel! A determined but traumatised young lad named Nat is about to have the adventure of a lifetime playing Puck at the Globe. And it has the most beautiful, meaningful ending: ‘One day I’ll write thee an airier Robin Goodfellow…’ We know Nat is going to grow up and be a wonderful actor. And play Ariel in The Tempest, just as he was promised by Shakespeare himself…

Room 13 by Robert Swindells. Read it in year 3, 4, 5, and possibly again in Year 6. And yet again when I led a children’s drama club and we performed the stage version. So y’see, Whitby was synonymous with darkness for me long before I read Dracula or even Robin Jarvis’ The Whitby Witches. Still find myself searching for the Crow’s Nest hotel and ‘the eye that sleeps by day.’ Swindells is massively underrated.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. This was one of those books that I read as a child and completely forgot the title, and had to google all sorts of things before I refound it all these years later. Thank you, internet. So good to know the book’s still out there. Wonderful, moving, US-set coming-of-age story.

The Kitty Slade Series by Fiona Dunbar. A girl who can see ghosts – and blogs about it. Makes growing up just that bit more problematic. Book 2, Fire and Roses is probably my favourite, not least for the clever ways it uses events and real historical figures of the 18th century to create a twisty tale that involves some fun code-cracking.

Teens/Young Adult

The Geekhood books

WOAH, STOP. WAY TOO MANY TO LIST. It’s no use – it’s going to have to be a future post. I’ll just say though that I really loved two of last year’s Waterstone’s nominees, Andy Robb’s Geekhood and Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds (which went on to win). And I constantly find my *relatively* new children’s/YA ‘crushes’ (John Green, Meg Rosoff, Maggie Stiefvater, Kevin Brooks, Patrick Ness, Jenny Downham) competing with the ‘old guard’ (Anne Fine, Phillip Pullman, Robert Swindells (for the compelling and more adult Staying Up), Judy Blume, Louise Rennison (for Georgia Nicholson and her nunga-nungas, of course), Jan Mark, Jaqueline Wilson, Dick King-Smith…) Well, not competing, but jostling with them perhaps – some of the ‘old guard’ authors remain as popular as ever, others less so. I want to bring them back…

How I Live Now

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Stoner – the best novel you’ve never read. No, really.

Well hello, 2014. You’ve started well, on the reading front, at least (not on the flooding front. Heartfelt sympathies to all flood victims…). So far there’s been the very funny and hugely enjoyable Mutton by India Knight (nothing like some clever chick-lit-type comedy to brighten the January nights), the wonderful La liste de mes envies (The List of my Desires) by Grégoire Delacourt (which I’ve reviewed for MyFrenchLife so can’t say too much about it here) and my onward quest with George R. R. Martin’s soaringly brilliant and utterly addictive A Song of Ice and Fire.

So apologies for the belatedness of this post. Too much readin’, not enough writin’. I’ll endeavour to be a more reliable little blogger throughout the rest of the year (and beyond)…

Firstly, a shocking admission: I’m not great at keeping up with the bestseller charts. The books hailed as the hot new reads often take a while to creep on here, if they creep on at all. I subscribe to writer Alison Mercer’s feelings about these things: I like to let the idea of a book grow on me. I try not to feel pressured to keep up with the whimsical Kardashians of book publicity.

But having said all that, sometimes you can be seduced by hype. And that’s fine too.

Hype is how I came by what has to be one of the best novels I read last year – in fact, one of the best novels I’ve read, like, ever. Ladies and gentleman, I give you John Williams’ Stoner.

John Williams photo

John Williams

The scene: Waterstone’s in Middlesbrough, a week before Christmas. My mum admits that she hasn’t bought me a book for Christmas. Sacrilege. She usually does, and I treasure the witty little dedications she writes. Do I have any in mind, she wonders? We’re standing right by a small table piled with copies of Stoner and a sign proclaiming it to be the Waterstone’s Book of the Year. At the back of my mind I also recall a sign in Blackwell’s calling it ‘the best book you’ve never read’. Yes, I said, this one. The fact that it was about an English academic helped. I had seen a pull quote from the book somewhere:

English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before…

Stoner had me instantly. There have been lots of excellent reviews that have tried to pinpoint what it is about John Williams’ prose that makes it so compelling. The book has a strange intensity about it – some critics say it’s the clarity with which Williams writes. I think Adam Foulds comes to the heart of it when he admits in his piece for the Indy that Williams’ skills are ‘hard to demonstrate in a review’ but that

Stoner’s narrative rhythm, its spacing of event, is flawless…The novel flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep.

I think it was this sense of calmness – of quiet sobriety, that seemingly untrendy thing – that I most responded to. Stoner himself undergoes traumatic experiences – the sad reality of his marriage; his entanglement with departmental politics. But there is a prevailing sense of calm about this novel and its protagonist – of surety, of the value of stolidly going about one’s work. This is felt, as Foulds recognises, on a formal as well as a thematic level. This is the message that Stoner has inherited from his rural upbringing, it seems, and it’s his application to his work that helps him to keep calm and carry on. Work, as John McGavern explains in the very good introduction to my edition, is an important theme in the book. For Stoner, work is often synonymous with love, too.

Stoner cover

My copy of Stoner. Thanks Santa.

I did find elements of Stoner distressing though. Is he too placid? Is he to be admired for how he handles his wife Edith – does his endurance of her have to be placed in its socio-historical context? Am I modern and naïve to even be asking this? Characters are often described as expressionless, as lacking animation – people’s faces are often ‘masks’ or ‘mask-like’. Just count the number of times this word/phrase is used. It begins with Stoner’s mother and father. These ‘humble’ country people never betray their emotions: when Stoner tells them of his decision not to return to the farm, ‘his father’s face…received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.’ All this piling up of references to masks and lack of animation seems to culminate in Stoner’s daughter, Gracie. Her natural, contented calmness and studious quietness – her affinity with Stoner – is corrupted into a kind of soulless passivity and indifference by Edith. By the time she’s grown:

It was a passive beauty she had, like a mask; her light blue eyes looked directly at one, without curiosity and without any apprehension that one might see beyond them; her voice was very soft, a little flat, and she spoke rarely.

I’d love to see what a feminist reading of Stoner makes of it all. I kept longing for Grace to rebel, for her father to rebel, but it never comes.

And that’s perhaps the point. Stoner asks to be reread and not necessarily understood but experienced, just as the whole novel proceeds to subvert the bleak view of Stoner’s life that is announced in its two opening paragraphs.

Believe the hype.